While a few researchers have claimed that digital technology is a powerful, causal factor in the rising rates of mental health problems, others have countered that the risk of harm for most teenagers is tiny — about the equivalent influence on well-being as wearing eyeglasses or regularly eating potatoes, one group calculated.
Now, the authors of the eyeglass paper have published a large, multiyear study providing what independent experts said was an unusually granular and rigorous look at the relationship between social media and adolescents’ feelings about life.
Analyzing survey responses of more than 84,000 people of all ages in Britain, the researchers identified two distinct periods of adolescence when heavy use of social media spurred lower ratings of “life satisfaction”: first around puberty — ages 11 to 13 for girls, and 14 to 15 for boys — and then again for both sexes around age 19.
Like many previous studies, this one found that the relationship between social media and an adolescent’s well-being was fairly weak. Still, it suggested that there were certain periods in development when teenagers may be most sensitive to the technology.
I don't know what to make of this debate. This paper, it seems to me, accurately summarizes the science we have on the issue: social media use can't be shown to have major impacts on mental health. But given that the mental health of teenagers has gotten a lot worse, what else could be causing it? Have maybe phones and social media gotten so ubiquitous that we can't actually tease out their effects? Or is there something else going on we can't put our fingers on?